Knowing your sustainability profile could help save a couple of tons each year

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Woman opening the fridge at home in the kitchen

Your annual financial statements have probably landed on your doormat by now, all those neat rows of numbers showing you exactly what your financial position is. But wouldn’t it be good to know as much about the number of tons of carbon dioxide you generated last year as you did about your personal finances? After all, understanding your carbon footprint could help you make more informed decisions. Below is a step-by-step plan to help you save a couple of tons of carbon dioxide a year.

Thirty per cent of all food in the United States goes in the bin; that’s enough to fill a five-lane motorway packed with lorries stretching all the way from New York to Los Angeles. Jan Raes Jan Raes Sustainability advisor

Most of us have no idea what a ton of carbon dioxide actually means, nor how much energy, water or raw materials we need to live well for one year. Where to begin? If you haven’t yet analysed your past behaviour, it’s almost impossible to make meaningful changes. This blog post should help get you on the right track in no time.

Six steps to knowing your sustainability profile

Practically every daily activity we undertake generates carbon emissions. From checking your Facebook feed to washing the windows with warm, sudsy water, everything we do consumes energy, most of which is still generated using fossil fuels. On top of that, certain products create or exacerbate social problems – your favourite chocolate, for instance, might be manufactured under conditions which are considered inhumane or degrading to those doing the work.

I should preface the list below by saying that I’ve specifically chosen to look at behaviour which generates high levels of emissions and which may not necessarily spring to mind immediately in discussions on this topic. So, are you ready? Here we go!

1. Do you eat more or less meat than you did five years ago?

If you need an excuse to cut back on meat, the environment is an excellent reason. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 15 per cent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions in the world are generated by animals in the meat industry. We grow corn and soya in distant countries, only to ship it back to our animals, which also happen to be a significant source of methane. Meat accounts for about 25 per cent of all carbon emissions linked to a typical Dutch diet. That means if you were to eliminate all animal products from your diet, you would cut your own carbon emissions by half in one fell swoop. Incidentally, eating meat or fish just twice a week represents about a 10 per cent reduction in carbon emissions compared to a standard diet. A rule of thumb is that beef is most polluting in terms of production, followed by pork and chicken.

2. How often do you fly when you could just as easily drive or take the train?

Do you choose the cheapest mode of transport or the one with the least impact on the environment? That choice often isn’t as clear-cut as you might think. Here are a few simple rules of thumb – the aim here being to demonstrate a basic principle, not to achieve absolute scientific precision. Flying 800 km in economy class creates about 250 kg of carbon emissions per passenger. A passenger in business class on the same flight generates 500 kg, while a first-class passenger produces one ton. The more leg room, the fewer the number of passengers on the flight and the higher the level of carbon dioxide per passenger.

A car trip generates about half the emissions produced when you fly economy class. If you ride alone and drive a fossil fuel-powered car, you’re generating about 125 kg of carbon emissions over an 800-km trip. The obvious solution is car sharing. With multiple people in a single car, the emissions per passenger drop dramatically. Finally, travelling by train is cleaner than flying or driving. Each passenger travelling 800 km by train generates an average of 30 kg of carbon dioxide. The least polluting option is to travel on green power, either by taking the train, or by driving an electric car.

But what if a plane ticket is cheaper than train fare?

The following scenario is likely to ring a bell. Two female friends in the UK have planned a weekend away together. If one of them travelled 650 km from Newcastle to Birmingham and back by train, they could see each other, and the trip would cost one of them €120. But if both of them bought a return ticket to Malaga, each flying from her home town, the total cost would be €90.

In the end, they decide to save €30 and meet up in Malaga. Despite saving them some cash, their trip was less favourable in terms of the carbon emissions it generated. Travelling 650 km by train produces about 25 kg of carbon dioxide. The women ended up generating a total of 2,500 kg by buying two return tickets from different cities. The bottom line is a savings of €30 versus the “additional cost” of around 2,475 kg in carbon emissions.

Here are two useful rules of thumb which may help you form an idea of what represents a single ton of carbon dioxide.
  • One ton of carbon dioxide is emitted when a person flies one-way from Amsterdam to Sydney in economy class.
  • Five tons of carbon dioxide, in terms of volume, could fill an entire hot-air balloon.

3. Do you check the fridge before doing the shopping?

Each year, the Dutch throw away about 50 kg of food per person. That much food could fill a line of lorries stretching the length of the country, all the way from Groningen in the north to Maastricht in the south – an idea I personally find a little distasteful. Compared with the States, though, the Netherlands is doing a pretty good job. According to figures released by the US government, a shocking 30 per cent of all food produced for human consumption is binned there. If you need a visual, that’s enough to fill a five-lane motorway with lorries stretching all the way from New York to Los Angeles. Unimaginable! The US hopes to have halved the amount of food it wastes to 65 million tons by 2030.

Obviously, handing out doggy bags is hardly an answer to the problem. What’s needed is a systemic change, and the US government has teamed up with the world’s largest food producers to address the issue. It’s also working with the corporate sector to develop the existing FoodKeeper app to make it easier for consumers to reduce the amount of food they waste.

4. Is something eating you about your pet food?

Roughly €70 billion is spent on pet food each year. Pet food is in large part manufactured using animal and plant sources which are unsuitable for human consumption. Sounds good so far, since pet food means less waste, our pets consuming what we don’t eat. Reducing waste isn’t the only criterion, though. It may come as a surprise, but the manufacturing of pet food sometimes involves human rights violations.

Unfortunately, not all pet food is “slave-free”. According to The New York Times, fishing boats in South-East Asia, particularly in Thailand, with forced workers on board actively supply fish to the US pet food industry. Questions about transparency have resulted in the sector now putting more emphasis on the source of its ingredients. Companies like Mars and Nestlé, the world’s top two pet food manufacturers, have confirmed they are committed to investigating and eliminating such modern slavery practices from their pet food production chain.

5. Got too much stuff?

The first storage facilities for families with too much stuff started to crop up in the United States in the 1960s. Now there are over 100,000 of these warehouses throughout the world. Storage is big business, too: over the last ten years, it has been one of the fastest growing sectors in the world, generating turnover in the tens of billions of euros. The question is whether goods will ever actually be used once they’ve been in storage for over a month. The main objection to our hoarding instinct is that we’re manufacturing tons of new products, while perfectly usable goods are just sitting in storage.

At the beginning of 2017, over 180 parties signed up to agreements on the reuse of products – and raw materials in particular. The National Raw Materials Agreement states that the Dutch economy must be completely circular by 2050, which means that raw materials and products are continually given a new life after use. It’s a considerable challenge. The plan stresses that reuse requires less energy than producing new raw materials and is thus better for the environment. In this way, the Netherlands will also be reducing its dependence on new products imported from other countries.

6. Do you support sustainability in your job?

A common pitfall when people try to gain insight into their personal sustainability profile is only looking at their home situation and not at supporting sustainability in the job they do every day. After all, what could be better than integrating a positive impact in the work you do? And I’m not talking about recycling coffee cups – unless coffee cups are your core business, of course.

At first glance, it might seem easier for those working in manufacturing or industry to focus on sustainability than it is for those working in an office environment. But accountants, for example, can add non-financial data on the environment or human rights to their company reports. Buyers can practise “buying social”, and bankers can offer products with healthy returns but which also put people and the planet first. The main thing is to prioritise impact in the job you do, and that means, as a professional, weighing up the positive and negative impact of your actions with each and every new decision you make. If your assessment results in a negative outcome, you look further until you find a solution which well and truly works.

2016 sustainability scores

Once again, the corporate sustainability reporting season is nearly upon us. Spring is always the best time to see how companies have fared in this area. ABN AMRO has integrated sustainability into its strategy and will be publishing its integrated annual report in the third week of March. Obviously, the report will be looking at the bank’s sustainability results as well.

I hope the tips above will help you gain a lasting insight into sustainability and your own lifestyle. They’re a good first step to reducing the impact of personal consumption on the environmental and/or social areas. I look forward to hearing about your own sustainability initiatives!


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